Evangelicals torn on Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump
March 3, 2016 12:16 AM
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets supporters after his rally in Mobile, Ala.
By Peter Smith / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The calls came in rapid-fire succession when the WORD-FM drive-time radio hosts put out some questions to its evangelical Christian audience on Monday:
What should conservative, anti-abortion Christians make of Donald Trump, with his support for Planned Parenthood, his serial marriages and boasting of “experiences” with married women, his profiting from the casinos and strip-club industries and his proclamation that he’s a Christian but doesn’t repent of anything?
Yes, said a caller named Laurie. “That’s what my spirit has been telling me,” she said. “Who am I to say he’s not a Christian? Only Christ knows his heart.”
No, said Russell, a John Kasich supporter: “God says, ‘Do not follow the ways of evil men.’”
“Absolutely,” said Richard. “I don’t agree with some of his antics on TV and the ... name-calling, but he’s able to make a change because he doesn’t need” the money of interest groups.
“Absolutely not,” said Judy. As a Christian, she lamented that Trump is “unprincipled, immoral. He’s had mistresses and multiple marriages.”
Yes, said Mary: ”I’m tired of our government supporting people sitting on their behinds and collecting benefits.”
And on it went, a microcosm of the debate that has roiled an evangelical world that had long thought it knew what it was about.
Why are so many self-described evangelical Christians, long known for voting in large part based on moral report cards, rallying to a candidate with a transparently shallow grasp of the religion he identifies with?
To be sure, the radio audience was deeply split on Mr. Trump (as they are in exit polls in many states, although Trump is getting a plurality against a splintered opposition). The WORD-FM co-hosts, Kathy Emmons and John Hall, have not endorsed any candidate, but both wonder where the evangelical movement is going.
“The first thing John and I noticed is the Trump supporters are not data driven,” said Ms. Emmons. “They don’t care much about policy.” Even bringing up his change of views on issues such as abortion doesn’t seem to affect voters. “It appears to be more about emotion,” she said.
Many Christians feel “on the fringe, actively hated, under attack,” Mr. Hall said. “They look at Donald Trump and say, ‘He may not be a Christian, but at least he’s a straight talker and he’s going to protect us.’”
Such voters perceive a contempt for Christians in several quarters. Religious groups from Western Pennsylvania and elsewhere have a pending Supreme Court challenge to Obamacare provisions on contraceptives that they say disregards their freedom of conscience.
Many conservative Christians see the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage as a fiat that flouted popular will in many states — and has subjected some Christian wedding vendors to civil-rights fines for refusing to catering to same-sex ceremonies on religious grounds.
In fact, evangelicals aren’t the only ones divided, as Trump even won a majority of Catholics in the Massachusetts primary, one of the first with a large Catholic vote, despite criticism from the pope himself of his immigration platform.
Yet much of the attention has been over the Trump divide ripping through even the top tier of the evangelical circuit. Some, such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr. and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, are supporting Trump, while prominent preachers such as Paula White have prayed with him publicly and the Rev. Franklin Graham has backed Mr. Trump’s idea of banning Muslim immigrants. Such supporters have often touted the nation’s Christian heritage.
Yet mega-bestselling author Max Lucado made a rare foray into politics by denouncing Trump’s crude comments toward women and others.
Russell Moore — the policy point man for the Southern Baptist Convention — said that Trump fever has helped prompted him to stopped calling himself ”evangelical.” That’s a cultural shift for the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and long a reliable source of evangelical foot soldiers for Republican causes.
He wrote recently: “I have watched as some (evangelical leaders) who gave stem-winding speeches about ‘character’ in office during the Clinton administration now minimize the spewing of profanities in campaign speeches, race-baiting and courting white supremacists, boasting of adulterous affairs, debauching public morality and justice through the casino and pornography industries.”
Warren Throckmorton, a professor of psychology at Grove City College who frequently blogs on the intersection of religion and politics, said Mr. Trump “has clearly exploited Christians’ fears of being second-class citizens, losing their country.”
And not just Mr. Trump but his nearest rival have reached into the “xenophobic right,” he said: “When Cruz and Trump can argue who can build the wall the fastest, who’s going to deport the most people,” he sees a complete departure from when 1980 Republican frontrunners Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush agreed on humane immigration reform.
Arthur Farnsley II, who researched religion among the economically marginalized in his book, “Flea Market Jesus,” said many people who believe the Bible is true don’t necessarily read it or connect with the evangelical culture where political mobilization takes place. If they have supported any politicians, it’s mavericks such as Ross Perot or Jesse Ventura, and more recently he’s seen Trump T-shirts at flea markets.
“The people I interviewed are not going to trust anyone whom they see as a representative of the system,” said Mr. Farnsley, a religious studies professor at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis. “All they can hope for is someone who expresses their concerns and offers an opportunity to break up the insiders’ game.”
Surveys give some indication of the issues driving Trump supporters, evangelical and otherwise. He does well among those who favor authoritarian leaders, Vox/Morning Consult research finds.
And for those who see Trump as part of a direct line from the launch of the tea party movement in 2009, there are other clues. Tea party supporters, like Trump, don’t want cuts in Social Security benefits, but they do distinguish between those who they believe deserve government benefits and “freeloaders” who don’t, according to a Harvard study.
And those who actually go to church fairly frequently are more evenly divided between Cruz and Trump, according to an EthicsDaily.com analysis of Reuters data. Some, like Mr. Moore, aren’t surprised that Trump would draw more from those who identify with Christianity than those serious about its implications.
Ms. Emmons also sees a connection. “We’re getting lazy,” she said. “We watch ’Celebrity Apprentice’ and can’t sit down to read the gospel of John.”
Mr. Hall said he’s disappointed that for all the “fabulous, intelligent, strong people in this country, these are the best people we put forward.”
But, he recalled, many evangelicals “were losing their minds eight years ago about President Obama,” and he has the same response over worries about Trump. “If you’re a Christian, you’ve got to believe God is in control, whoever is in the White House or the House or the Senate,” he said.
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